Edelman’s mission to take “the Symbolic’s negativity to the very letter of the law,” and Dean’s exchanges of HIV as acts “homologous to the exchange of wedding rings” seem only tenuously connected to the principles of Freudian psychoanalysis (Edelman 5; Dean 82). How do Edelman and Dean form their connection between contemporary psychoanalysis, which is focused on the individual; and queer psychoanalysis, which is focused on the expressions of groups, subcultures, and social strata? The full title of Edelman’s seminal text on queer theory is, No Future – Queer Theory and the Death Drive, and it is Edelman’s link between his concept of “reproductive futurism” (Edelman 2) and Freud’s all-too-briefly explored concept of the death drive (or “death instinct” (Freud 589)) that I find most interesting. In this paper, I will demonstrate that while Edelman’s reproductive futurism and Dean’s “barebacking” (Dean 80) seem irreconcilably opposed, Freud’s concept of the death drive provides an accurate methodology for examining both forms of social expression.

What exactly is meant by the term death instinct? How does the death instinct find itself on the cover of a book titled No Future? Is Edelman abusing the term? To answer these questions, I will begin with an interpretation of the death instinct through the lens of queer theory. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud finds himself in a conundrum, while examining the “ ‘ego-instincts’ and the sexual instincts,” as they relate to the “repetitive habits of children,” Freud discovered a compulsion—in both children and adults—to act out both pleasant and unpleasant behaviours; from this, Freud is forced to conclude that “if the self-preservative instincts are also of a libidinous kind, then perhaps we have no other instincts at all than libidinous ones” (Freud 589–706; emphasis added). In other words, if the entire complex of human instinct (or drive) is contained within the sexual instincts, why do many individuals act out unpleasant behaviours that “disregard in every way the pleasure-principle?” (Freud 473). It is within these repetitive behaviours where Freud’s “proofs of the organic compulsion to repetition are found;” and it is within this “organic compulsion” where the foundation of Freud’s principal of the death drive is found (Freud 476). But, how does an organic compulsion explain bareback subculture, and where can one find reproductive futurism in the repetitive habits of children?

There are two potential answers to these questions: on one hand, I can rely on the biological aspect of the death instinct, the need for “reproductive cells [to] operate against the death of the living substance… for what must seem to us to be potential immortality” (Freud 539); on the other hand, I can use the social aspects of the death drive, the “external, disturbing and distracting” influences driving an organic being to further complexity (Freud 492). These external forces merit further exploration, if—like the sexual instincts—the death instincts are purely biological, if “all organic instincts are conservative… [directed] towards [the] reinstatement of something earlier,” from whence comes the complexity of human biology? If the goal of man’s existence is a return to the initial inanimate state—a true “being-towards-death”—we cannot also possess the self-preservative sexual instincts (Heidegger 245). In fact, the sexual instincts would become superfluous—what organism, through a process of evolution, would become increasingly complex if the basis for all instinct is a return to the grave? Accordingly, is “deliberate transmission of HIV” the former, biological instinct, or a result of cultural interference? (Dean 80). This question seems rhetorical: ‘of course it is a purely biological instinct, why would someone make “a conscious, firm decision” to become infected with HIV if not for some inexplicable biological need?’ (Dean 81; quoting Scarce). This response is both logical and reasonable, but completely ignores Freud’s initial basis for the death instinct; if our instincts only “operate against the death of the living substance” we end up in Freud’s initial conundrum (Freud 539). In fact, if this assumption is correct, we lose all basis for the existence of all (in the case of sexual orientation) subcultural groups; if the sole foundation for the pursuit of sexual pleasure is an underlying biological need to reproduce, the aim of all sexual acts must be reproduction. There can be no bareback subculture, nor reproductive futurism in such a model; the former is excluded prima facie the biological model’s exclusion of non-reproductive sex acts, the latter is excluded due to the need for a subversive act to exist prior to the imposition of “an ideological limit on political discourse” (Edelman 2). This is a classic chicken-egg problem: ‘which came first, the queer or the child?’ In other words, if the death drive has a purely biological basis, from whence comes the queer? And, without the queer, from whence comes the politically charged redheaded orphan child with her interminable cries of ‘tomorrow, tomorrow?’

Edelman provides a concise answer to this question: “the [death] drive holds the place of what meaning misses in much the same way the signifier preserves at the heart of the signifying order the empty and arbitrary letter, the meaningless substrate of signification that meaning intends to conceal;” furthermore, “it enacts the formal repetition distinctive of the drive while representing itself as the narrative sequence of history” (Edelman 10; emphasis added). Is Edelman saying one doesn’t have to choose between the two sides of the death drive? Could the queer be in opposition to the “narrative sequence of history” while also acting out the biological need for immortality? (Edelman 10). Can I somehow link the transmission of HIV “homologous to the exchange of [a] wedding ring” into this model of a simultaneously biological and social expression of the death drive? (Dean 82). Is it possible that the death drive is a combination of biological urges and social constructs, not two separate constructs, but rather a single construct encompassing both forms of expression? Is the transmission of HIV analogous to heterosexual reproduction? Is Annie’s cry of ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’ connected to this analogue? How? To answer these questions in order: yes, of course, clearly, absolutely, and—obviously—the death drive.

Let me explain, Dean’s examination of the deliberate transmission of HIV centres around three main points:

  1. “Barebacking was invented by some gay men to keep their sex outside the pale of respectability;” subsisting a form of subversion or opposition to ‘gay-life’ being swallowed up by heterosexual norms (Dean 81).
  2. The “experiments with elective kinship” occurring in gay communities worldwide; a seeming acceptance of the heteronormative expression of family-values, but—in the vein of Butler’s “subversive bodily acts”—these families serve as a parody of heteronormative family constructs (Dean 82; Butler 2542).
  3. Members of barebacking, bugchasing, and giftgiving subculture “understand their actions as creative rather than destructive;” these acts—in line with the first two points—create bonds of, blood, kinship, and subversion; these constructive acts are an exact manifestation of the biological aspect of Freud’s death drive (Dean 84).

The reproductive or creative aspect provides the biological “semblance of immortality,” as per Dean “one can easily [through HIV infection] start a single-sex family this way” (Freud 596; Dean 87). Therefore, the sexual aspect of bareback culture must exist within the opposition to dominant heterosexual cultural modes. In other words, I’ve found the biological logic behind the correlation of deliberate HIV transmission and the death drive, but how do expressions of sexual subversion fit within Freud’s theory of the death drive?

To answer these questions, I must focus on the social aspects of the death drive, the cellular inter-organism “conjugation… [as] the prototype of sexual propagation of higher organism: as yet it has nothing to do with multiplication, it is confined to the mingling of substances of both individuals” (Freud 657–658; emphasis added). This is to say that, for the death drive to operate it must encompass the need to biologically reproduce, as well as the desire to reproduce the social conditions upon which such reproduction relies. The “sexual propagation of higher organisms” cannot only rely only on the “mingling of substances,” as the earliest forms of life reproduced through asexual cell division (Freud 568). It is within the desire of another, regardless of potential reproductivity, upon which the evolution from single-celled amoeba to multi-cellular organisms relies. Thus, the transmission of HIV becomes both a biological drive and a social drive; the social drive ensures the reproduction of the conditions that allow the biological reproduction to exist. In other words, the deliberate transmission of HIV establishes “generational differences, [and provides] a structure that enables transmission of [bareback] culture from one generation to the next” (Dean 88). Furthermore, in such a system Edelman’s reproductive futurism becomes an expression of this same aspect of the death drive; as, “the child has come to embody for us the telos of the social order and come to be seen as the one for whom that order is held in perpetual trust” (Edelman 11). Thus, the child is not a mere ideological construct, it is a complex and integral manifestation of the dominant social order and this order’s reliance on heteronormativity as the basis for its continued existence.

To summarise, I have shown that both deliberate HIV transmission and reproductive futurism are expressions of the seemingly diametric sexual/death instinct construct. Bareback subculture is an expression of the social desire to reproduce the conditions upon which its existence relies, as well as the desire to establish “generational differences,” within the subculture itself (Dean 88). The same can be said for reproductive futurism, it is an expression of the biological need for immortality through children, as well as the embodiment of “the telos of the social order” upon which the continuity of this biological immortality relies (Edelman 11). Both expressions form a biological semblance of immortality, but it is social immortality that allows one to appear destructive—to both one’s self and the dominant culture within which one exists—while acting with creative motivation. Thus, HIV does not represent the death of the body, it represents the genealogy of certain cultural mores; the child does not represent an actual child, but rather the continuity of the cultural system that allows the child to exist in the first place.

In conclusion, both reproductive futurism and bareback subculture exist as expressions of Freud’s death drive; they are not disparate concepts, but varied manifestations of the same thing. I have demonstrated Edelman’s cry of “fuck Annie,” and Dean’s Texan whisper of “I want you to breed me” to come from exactly the same place (Edelman 29; Dean 80). But seriously, for queerness to exist in opposition, for queerness to exist at all, these considerations of reproductive futurism and HIV as familial bond all conclude on one, pivotal statement: the battle cry of queer futurity must be an unabashed fuck Annie, and fuck the system upon which Annie’s existence relies.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “From Gender Trouble.” Norton Anthology, 1990, pp. 2540–2553.

Dean, Tim. “Breeding Culture: Barebacking, Bugchasing, Giftgiving.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 49, no. 1/2, 2008, pp. 84–94, www.jstor.org/stable/25091283.

Edelman, Lee. No Future – Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke UP, 2004.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Edited by Ernest Jones, Translated by CJ.M. Hubback, Kindle Edition, The International Psycho-Analytical Library, 1992.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Harper & Row, Inc., 2008.

Leitch, Vincent B., et al., Editors. The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Second Edition, W. W. Norton & Co., 2010.